KARE — Avian flu forensic mystery in Minnesota

Trisha Volpe, KARE 10:12 a.m. EDT May 8, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS – Turkeys are an $800 million business in Minnesota, but a quickly spreading strain of avian flu has put the industry in crisis mode, as scientists work to understand the mysterious disease.

Experts say the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza that has killed millions of turkeys and chickens this spring is a mixture of a virus from Europe/Asia and another from North America, creating a kind of super bug that is likely to be around for several years.

“Hopefully we can all put our heads together and figure this thing out,” said Paul Young, a wildlife disease biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Scientists, who are also detectives, are collecting and analyzing evidence, trying to understand what brought the virus to Minnesota and why it’s spreading so fast.

Kandiyohi County has been ground zero for the outbreak, where more farms have been affected here than anywhere.

Researchers know migrating birds, like ducks and geese, still flying back to Minnesota naturally carry the virus. It doesn’t seem to affect them, but can remain in what those birds leave behind – their droppings.

The DNR and the USDA have been collecting thousands of what they call ‘environmental’ samples from areas where ducks have landed, primarily near water.

“When a duck is on land and it poops and other ducks are stepping in the poop and eating around this fecal material, then it’s spread from bird to bird,” Hildebrand said.

What if ducks dropped the virus on a farm during a flyby or is the answer blowing in the wind?

One theory experts have discussed is whether avian flu in duck droppings may have spread by air because of high winds. They also believe there is more than one pathway the virus is using to get into farms and that the introduction of the virus has been point introduction not the result of a spread from farm to farm.

So might the duck be an innocent bystander?

A recent finding by wildlife pathologists in Madison, Wisconsin may have sent the case in a totally different direction.

“Lots of things surprises me about this virus,” said wildlife virologist Hon Ip, who studies animal viruses at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center – the CDC for wild animals. At a lab in Madison, scientists identify, track and help prevent infectious disease from spreading.

Pathologists have been dissecting dead birds sent from Minnesota, testing them – along with wild turkey samples – for avian flu.

“We need to know how the virus is truly spreading. Is it just by migratory birds,” Ip said.

And scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center did find the flu – not in a duck – but in a Cooper’s hawk from Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota. The hawk, researchers believe, must have eaten an infected bird.

The problem is the Cooper’s hawk doesn’t each ducks. Scientists wonder if they should be looking at a different species of bird – not just ducks – as a potential carrier of avian influenza.
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